With or without Lance, fans will ride on
I watched Stage 17 of the Tour de France on a giant, inflated projection screen in a Seattle park on Thursday, surrounded by cyclists, parents and kids.
Under a starry sky, we saw Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck battle up the beyond-category Col du Tourmalet, riding through fog, around sheep, dodging fans dressed as the devil and a water bottle, passing Kazakhs both real (Alexandre Vinokourov) and fake (men in Borat costumes) and, ultimately, into cycling legend.
There were so many people and animals (sheep!) crowding and harassing the cyclists up the final kilometers, I half-expected to see federal employees running alongside the peloton and waving subpoenas to testify in the Floyd Landis investigation.
Frequent shouts of "Go, Andy!'' filled the night air -- "Go Alberto!" cheers were conspicuously absent -- while hundreds of fans of all ages enjoyed the stage. Kids drank soda, adults sipped wine and beer, and we all bought $5 raffle tickets for a chance to win a new bike or a spot in a 183-mile ride from Seattle to Vancouver that sold out months ago.
And, mind you, this was for a Tour stage that was 12 hours old by the time event organizers started showing it on the big screen. Yeah, I think American interest in cycling and the Tour de France will survive Lance Armstrong's second retirement just fine.
About the only time we saw Lance after his disastrous multiple-crash Stage 8 was during the commercial breaks, when we saw plenty of him. By my count, Lance was in eight different commercials for five different companies, selling everything from a "beat cancer" philosophy to beer and cars. His days in yellow were long behind him, but not his days with green.
In addition to getting more Americans on their bikes, Lance and his seven victories got us much more interested in the Tour de France. As American cyclist Tyler Farrar told me, coverage has expanded from some highlights at night to nearly 24/7 broadcasts. Now the biggest challenge is deciding what coverage to watch. Get up early for the live broadcast? Watch the first and second replays? Avoid all news and updates (not easy in this era) to watch primetime shows? Or just watch it online when you want to?
Cycling ratings are never going to challenge football for TV supremacy in this country, but the sport enjoys a solid fan base, and it's not going to disappear because Lance has ridden into the sunset. We roll with the Tour now, not just Lance.
Lance was pretty much cooked after Stage 3, but we still enjoyed a dramatic, entertaining Tour, filled with intimidating mountains and jarring cobblestones, muscle-sapping heat and dangerous rain-slickened descents, spectacular scenery and fog-shrouded images, drunken fans and oblivious sheep (sheep!).
Fans argued over whether Contador should have slowed down for Schleck after the chain-ring slip. I'm still not certain how I feel about it, but I do know this: Contador won himself few fans and lost an opportunity to enhance his image by not waiting for Schleck.
When the first rider crested the Tourmalet 100 years ago, he famously shouted, "Murderers!" at race officials. When Contador and Schleck reached the top this week, I wanted to shout, "More!" Watching the stage's broadcast finish in the park, I felt like waving a cigarette lighter (or a cell phone) and demanding an encore.
So we'll tune in next year for the 100th anniversary of the Tour's first climb in the Alps, rooting for Schleck or Contador, or Christian Vande Velde and Levi Leipheimer of the United States. We'll cheer for Farrar to finally beat Mark Cavendish. Or we'll simply root for any of the other riders from around the world we've come to know over the years -- Cadel Evans, Fabian Cancellara, Denis Menchov, Damiano Cunego, Jens Voigt, Ryder Hesjedal, Carlos Sastre and all the others.
We'll debate which teams have the best jerseys (I opt for Sky because they have the common sense to put names on them) and which ones have the worst (Footon-Servetto), and say "Euskaltel-Euskadi" just for the fun of it.
Mostly, we'll enjoy the Tour. Lance is retiring, but a vast, rich peloton remains to capably pull us through future Tours as we pull for those within it.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.